Successful program faces cuts

By: - June 27, 2005 5:01 am

Raleigh News & Observer
Legislators debate drug court funds

By TIM WHITMIRE, The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE — It was a graduation ceremony like many others. Ellie Andrews got a diploma. Her 3-year-old daughter, Abbey, applauded and later licked the icing off a celebration cupcake.

But the commencement speaker was a judge, who congratulated Andrews for completing a nearly yearlong treatment program in Mecklenburg County’s drug court, where the coursework included staying clean for more than 340 days and never missing a court or counseling session.

"It was hard and time-consuming, but it was worth it," said Andrews, 30. "It’s much better than the alternative."

For Andrews, the alternative was a prison term of at least two years. Instead, she ended up in the drug court, an option offered to some nonviolent offenders charged with drug- and alcohol-related crimes that studies have found to be more effective than traditional drug treatment programs.

But despite the program’s successes, and the support of both local and statewide court officials, the drug courts in Mecklenburg County and more than a dozen other judicial districts around the state are in peril as legislators negotiate a budget for the next two years.

The Senate’s version of the budget cuts nearly all of their operational budget of just over $1 million. Sen. Scott Thomas, D-Craven, one of the budget-writers, believes the courts can be run using existing resources and untapped federal drug treatment funds.

But without state money, Mecklenburg County officials say they’ll have to shut down their drug courts by Oct. 1. And even if the money is restored, there remains a deep conflict between the locally run courts and the state Administrative Office of the Courts, which is trying to standardize drug court operations and spending across the state.

"I don’t understand it," said Phil Howerton, the Mecklenburg District Court judge who congratulated Andrews at her graduation last week. "Come on, guys, this works. Why kill it?"

On that point — that drug courts work — there appears to be little debate. Mecklenburg County’s drug court, the state’s first when it opened in 1996, today handles more offenders than any other in North Carolina and has been held up as a national model.

A state study released in March reported 2004 graduation rates of 35 percent and a retention rate of more than 65 percent for all of North Carolina’s drug courts. While that might appear low, national studies have found that 80 percent to 90 percent of drug abusers don’t even make it to the one-year mark of traditional treatment programs.

Numerous studies of the nation’s more than 1,100 drug courts show participants are substantially less likely to be re-arrested or convicted than nonparticipants. One recent national study, which included drug court graduates from North Carolina, found that only 16.4 percent of 17,000 drug court graduates had been re-arrested and charged with a felony.

Estimates of money saved by drug courts, which can substitute for incarceration and are aimed at preventing future arrests, trials and prison time, vary widely, but supporters agree the long-term payoff is substantial.

The question of state funding is now before a conference committee working on a compromise spending plan.

Thomas, the senator who handles courts budgeting, said he was ordered by the Senate’s top budget writers to find spending reductions beyond those recommended by Democratic Gov. Mike Easley. He said the Senate’s cuts don’t mean the end of drug courts.

"It was our intent for the drug treatment courts to continue to exist with existing personnel," he said.

Howerton and others in Mecklenburg County, where the court system is already overburdened, dismiss that logic. Drug courts there and elsewhere have operated for years on a patchwork of local and state funding and federal grants, many of which were designed to offer one-time seed money.

Statewide, the 15 adult drug courts in 14 judicial districts around the state — from Avery and Watauga counties in the mountains to New Hanover County at the coast — served 1,002 participants in 2004.

Participants such as Andrews undergo at least a year of intensive group and individual counseling. They are required to find work, pay $10 a week toward the costs of their treatment and are monitored with regular drug and blood-alcohol tests. They can graduate — with charges dismissed and probation terminated — only if they have been clean for three to six months.

For those not making the grade, there are harsh consequences. Before Andrews’ recent graduation, Howerton sent three participants to jail for one- or two-day stays, with one going straight from the courtroom to the county lockup across the street. Two had missed multiple treatment sessions. Another had tested positive for cocaine.

(Associated Press writer Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.)

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066